Practicing mindfulness while moving is something I’ve been doing, advocating and coaching for many years. It makes a lot of sense to increase awareness of what the body is doing in order to protect and refine what’s working well and correct what is not. As we strengthen our awareness of the body as a whole and the subtle signals coming from different parts, we increase our safety and longevity in the activity, and we increase our enjoyment too.
But why would we want to practice mindfulness while sitting still?
Being well, or more specifically, thriving as a whole person, involves not just a well-functioning body, but a well-functioning mind. What is happening in the body can powerfully effect the state of the mind and what is happening in the mind can powerfully effect the state of the body. If you are in better control of your body, this can improve the experiences you have in the mind. If you are not in very good control of your mind, this can work against the good experiences you try to have in your body. You cannot get the full benefits of training the body without training the mind as well, and vice-versa (they are one whole complex system, after all).
The action of mindfulness (setting the stage for one to practice the 9 attitudes of mindfulness) is the ability to bring one’s awareness and attention and hold these on what is happening right now in this moment. This is the foundation for any intentional changes you want to make in your habits: movement habits, thinking habits, and emotional habits. Sitting still while practicing mindfulness is going to provide the opportunity to notice little internal things happening that are not noticed when there is motion going on. A whole different part of your universe is opened up to exploration when you sit still and take time to notice.
While practicing mindfulness-with-motion is going to build your strength of awareness around physical movement, it is not likely going to be as effective at helping you change patterns of thinking, especially those hiding behind your motion. It will not likely help you notice (and later on, intervene in) the subtle sequence of a trigger that leads to a bodily response that leads to an emotional reaction which leads to a series of thoughts that you then have to deal with consciously after it has all been unleashed inside of you.
A universally important application for mindfulness-without-motion is for when we go to sleep. Every single one of us must stop moving in order to sleep. However, too many people realize only when they stop the body moving at bedtime how out of control their mental movements really are. The signals to and from the moving body and the external world are no longer filling up the channels of the nervous system and now the internal patterns of the mind take center stage of consciousness. Falling into deep, peaceful, refreshing sleep requires a still mind as well as a still body. It would be enormously helpful to be able to still the mind on demand as you are able to with the body.
In my experience and in my studies on this it appears that nothing confronts the weakness in mental control like mindfulness-without-motion. And ‘confrontation’ is probably a good word to describe it. I acknowledge the fact that the early stages of exercising control over attention while sitting still can be very frustrating. And it will be especially frustrating for people who believe they have an attention deficit of some sort because they are already primed to believe they will have a harder time doing this than others do. I also point out the fact that those who find mindfulness-without-motion frustrating are providing evidence in that complaint that they need this skill more than those who don’t seem to suffer from attention problems. I also acknowledge that it is more difficult than ever in this modern world to gain control over one’s own attention because from infancy humans are now immersed in a hyper-stimulating, attention-grabbing environment, in regards to both technology and our culture of consumption. Adults can lose control over much of their own attention, and young ones can be programmed to never have control over it from the start.
So it is no wonder attention deficit is a popular diagnosis now. I get quite a few people telling me that sitting meditation just doesn’t work for them because they just can’t quiet their mind… as if the practice was meant for those who find it easy. When I hear that complaint, I feel compassion for another casualty of our modern environment, and I see that they are missing the point of mindfulness training: it intended for people who have poor attention and poor control over their internal experience.
If someone came to me and said, “I know you do pushups. That’s fine, but I just can’t do them. They are too hard for me. They don’t fit my body,” what would I think? 1) this has nothing to do with your body type but about strength, and 2) because they are hard for you that is the very reason why you should start working on becoming capable of doing them. None one found pushups easy to do when they started, but became strong by doing them.
A pushup represents a basic human movement and a basic physical strength that has important utility in all physical domains, at all stages in life. Not only is it universally useful, the capability of being able to hold or push your body weight can literally help protect your life. Being able to push your own body weight off the ground (or push another person’s body weight away from you) is a necessary human strength, not an elective for some people who like that kind of stuff. When you can handle your own body weight in such a position, you become capable of helping other people in more ways too.
Now let’s link this back to the mind. Becoming aware and being able to choose where you direct your own attention, then being able to hold your attention there for extended periods of time, against distraction and resistance, is like being able to push up and hold your body weight against gravity. It is a fundamental skill that has enormous utility and importance to your well-being. Everything out there is pushing or pulling on your attention because along with more control over your attention comes more control over your behavior. So, who or what do you want controlling your attention and your behavior more than you do?
Think about this another way: Who or what holds your attention most of the time gets to program you.
Let that sink in for a moment.
I think I am going to pause here to allow for reflection and then resume in Part 2.
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